Category: Games

Why chess has remained popular, and why the internet is hard to predict

Those are the topics of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

It turns out that chess is oddly well-suited for a high-tech world. Chess does not make for gripping television, but the option of live viewing online, supplemented by computer analysis or personal commentary, has driven a renaissance of the game.

For one thing, computer evaluations have made watching more intelligible. Even if you barely understand chess, you can quickly get a sense of the state of play with the frequently changing numerical evaluations (“+ 2.00,” for instance, means white has a decisive advantage, whereas “0.00” signals an even position). You also can see, with each move, whether the player will choose what the computer finds best.

In essence, some of the suspenseful stupidities of low-level video games have been infused into eggheady chess. You can indulge your inner Pac Man without feeling guilty about it.

At first it was thought that online viewers would favor rapid and blitz chess, which are (as you might expect) more fast-paced. In fact, the slower games, including contests of five hours or more, have not put viewers off. If you are sitting at your office desk, you might wish to glance at the position every few minutes or so. A slower game means you can do that without missing much of the action, and yet still most of your work will get done. If the game is heading to a climax, you can pay full attention for that short period.

Fortunately, the software programs that evaluate the games and players are not yet infallible. So if Stockfish (one such program) indicates that your favorite player is far behind, you can hold out a slim hope that the software is wrong. “Creating artificial suspense” is one of the killer apps of the internet.

There is much more, including a discussion of basketball and trash talking, do read the whole thing.

My favorite things Azerbaijan

I am arrived in Baku!  Here goes:

1. Chess player: Garry Kasparov.  Maybe the greatest player of all time?  He is not ethnic Azerbaijani, but grew up in Baku.

Teimour Radjabov.  It is amazing for how long he has gotten away with playing the King’s Indian Defense at the highest levels of chess competition.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  Over the last year, he has had the best results of anyone in the chess world, including Carlsen.  His forcing style resembles that of Kasparov.

Vugar Gashimov.  He was pretty good too, passed away prematurely in 2014.

Cellist and conductorMstislav Rostropovich, born in Baku.  His Bach Cello Suites are perhaps my favorite of all extant recordings.  Here is one (different) YouTube version.  As a conductor he was uneven, but capable of spectacular live performances of Shostakovich.

Pianist: Bella Davidovich, born in Baku, especially her Chopin.

Philosopher: Max Black, also born in Baku.  He edited Frege and worked on problems from Leibniz, such as the identity of indiscernibles.

Note that numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 on this list were Jews who emigrated to America.

Do you have reciprocity anxiety?

Namely the fear of owing other people, or institutions, a favor, or maybe just the possible perception of such?:

The researchers believe reciprocity anxiety is likely to be greater the bigger a favour and the more public its receipt. They think it’s a trait that companies should take an interest in – while loyalty schemes, vouchers and other freebies have obvious appeal to many customers, results from two initial studies suggested that these marketing strategies are actually likely to deter others…

In a follow-up study, volunteers imagined a shop attendant offering them a free drink and plate full of snacks. Afterwards, high scorers in reciprocity anxiety scored lower for customer satisfaction and they said they would be less willing to visit the store again and less willing to spread a good word about the shop.

“Reciprocity works to establish a psychological bond” between customer and firm, the researchers said, but the discomfort it causes can backfire among those high in reciprocity anxiety, especially if they feel the benefits reflect badly on them or that they will struggle to reciprocate (around 18 per cent of people tested in these new studies scored highly in the trait; age and gender were unrelated).

Here is the full article, and the pointer is from Michelle Dawson.  Finally:

…I wonder how it might impact the ways that people manage their friendships and other relationships – perhaps high scorers in reciprocity anxiety are inclined to turn down invitations, seek help or receive other friendly favours, putting them at risk of loneliness and isolation.

Chinese sentences of the day another view of Trump

I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by his skill as a strategist and tactician…He [Yafei] worries that strategic competition has become the new normal and says that “trade wars are just the tip of the iceberg”.

…In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington. Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong…

My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the US first president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skillful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.

That is highly speculative, to say the least.  And perhaps you should not be happy if China sees your strategy as strong, since China itself generally does a poor job cultivating allies and also undervalues them.  In any case, that is from Mark Leonard at the FT.

Who’s complacent?

A strata on Vancouver Island is experiencing a backlash after passing a bylaw last week banning outdoor play — a rule that is not unusual but goes further than most, according to the Condominium Home Owners’ Association of B.C.

In B.C., ownership in condominiums, apartments or townhouses sharing common areas is often purchased through an owners’ corporation under a strata title. The owners elect a council that sets policy for the strata.

Artisan Gardens, a neighbourhood development in Chemainus, about 80 kilometres north of Victoria, voted 15-4 in favour of adopting a bylaw that prohibits using the roadway “for play, including hockey, baseball, basketball, skateboarding, chalk artistry, bicycling or other sports and recreational activities.”

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

Trampoline question

I gave a talk yesterday, and did not have time to get to this question, from Eric S., which we discussed during the dinner hour:

Who could launch themselves higher on a trampoline? LeBron James or Simone Biles?

She is a world class female gymnast, and much lighter (and less strong) than LeBron.  The question is assuming that both parties are motivated to win the competition, and have sufficient time to train to achieve their maximum potential in the contest.

Ultimately I settled on Simone as the better answer, mumbling something about small ants being very powerful for their size, and that magnification and extension of muscle spans ends up producing problematic results.  The power gain from the extra weight might be more than offset by the “drag” loss on the way up.  But I genuinely do not know.  Your view?

Addendum: This is an interesting article on animals and elastic springs.  And Jason Kottke adds comment, amazing photo too.

Is North Korea withdrawing from the nuclear talks?

No, they are negotiating, read their latest statement, it is full of “ifs.”  If you are negotiating, especially in a fraught situation, often you will feel the need to walk away from the talks, or at least threaten to do so.  (Of course, many people suggest Obama should have done more of this leading up to the Iran deal.)  And Kim doesn’t want to enter the talks with Trump having had an unbroken string of PR successes.

Now, there is a perfectly reasonable argument for being pessimistic about the North Korean nuclear talks, namely that some of the demands of the two sides may prove incompatible.  The good news, if you would call it that, is that we are not actually calling for complete denuclearization of North Korea, though nonetheless we may require more than they are willing to cede.  Most of all, we want them to start acting like a normal evil government, rather than like a crazy evil government.  Maybe that is too hard for Kim to pull off and still feel stable.

Still, the new news isn’t really bad news at all.  It is how an evil tyrannical government negotiates.  It is also how some non-evil tyrannical governments negotiate as well, not to mention non-evil, non-tyrannical governments too.

Elite competitors live longer, even in chess

The survival rates of GMs at 30 and 60 years since GM title achievement were 87% and 15%, respectively. The life expectancy of GMs at the age of 30 years (which is near the average age when they attained a GM title) was 53.6 ([95% CI]: 47.7–58.5) years, which is significantly greater than the overall weighted mean life expectancy of 45.9 years for the general population. Compared to Eastern Europe, GMs in North America (HR [95% CI]: 0.51 [0.29–0.88]) and Western Europe (HR [95% CI]: 0.53 [0.34–0.83]) had a longer lifespan. The RS analysis showed that both GMs and OMs had a significant survival advantage over the general population, and there was no statistically significant difference in the RS of GMs (RS [95% CI]: 1.14 [1.08–1.20]) compared to OMs: (RS [95% CI]: 1.09 [1.07–1.11]) at 30 years.

Elite chess players live longer than the general population and have a similar survival advantage to elite competitors in physical sports.

That is from An Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, and Philip M. Clarke, via a loyal MR reader.

What can we plausibly hope for with North Korea?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

First: The North Korean regime has never been bureaucratized in the modern sense of that term. While we don’t have comprehensive information, it seems that until recently Kim as leader had not been going abroad, nor had he been receiving many visits from other heads of state. His position and perhaps his mood has been one of extreme isolation, and he is not surrounded by anything resembling the U.S. State Department or even the old-style Soviet bureaucracies that managed foreign policy for the USSR. The rest of his regime is probably poorly informed about the extent of American military superiority, should a conflict come to pass.

By meeting with other foreign leaders, the North Korean regime would be forced to build up its basic processes for dealing with the rest of the world. That in turn creates interest groups and flows of information (some of which invariably leak out). The North Korean populace responds by thinking more about the outside world, making it harder to control by propaganda. In turn the North Korean leadership may decide to continue economic liberalization.

One need not count on an “End of History” story culminating in liberalism and democratization. The more modest hope would be for the North Korean leadership to become more decentralized, more bureaucratic, better informed and harder to marshal behind crazy military measures.

The unspoken goal of engagement would be to encourage North Korea to evolve into a more banal and more predictable form. That is the natural flow of most bureaucratic organizations, so in this regard American negotiators actually have time on their side. The North Koreans are going to change a lot more than the U.S. is likely to.

And the concluding sentence:

Think of any diplomatic talks with North Korea as a big act of theater — designed not to fool him, but to teach him that theater itself can be fun.

Do read the whole thing.

The Middle East and Syria right now

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Some historical events are relatively easy to model with game theory: the Cuban Missile crisis, many of the Cold War proxy wars, the crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons. In those conflicts, the number of relevant parties is small and each typically has some degree of internal cohesion.

To find a situation comparable to the Middle East today, with so many involved countries, and so many interrelationships between internal and external political issues, one has to go back to the First World War, not an entirely comforting thought.

The situation right before that war had many distinct yet related moving parts, including the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialist scramble for colonies, the prior Balkan Wars, a rising Germany seeking parity or superiority with Great Britain, an unstable alliance system, an unworkable Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the complex internal politics of Russia, which eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution.

What do we learn from the history of that time? Well, even if the chance of war was high by early 1914, it was far from obvious that the Central Powers attack on France, Belgium and Russia would be set off by a political assassination in the Balkans.

Nonetheless, in sufficiently complex situations, chain reactions can cause small events to cascade into big changes. In World War I, one goal behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to break off parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a new Yugoslavia. The empire responded by making some demands on Serbia, which were not heeded, a declaration of war followed, and the alliance system activated broader conflicts across Europe.

If you don’t quite follow how a single assassination, which was not even seen as so important the day it occurred, triggered the death of so many millions, and the destruction of so much of Europe, that is exactly the point. When there is no clear way for observers to model the situation, a single bad event can take on a very large significance and for reasons that are not entirely explicable.

Do read the whole thing.

How might game theory shed light on Trump talking to Kim?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, they chose a nice photo.  Here is an excerpt:

If North Korea and the U.S. simply talk, and nothing comes of it, that raises the status of Kim Jong Un, who then would keep improving his missiles anyway. So if the U.S. goes ahead with the talks, you might rationally infer that the risk of war has gone up. Furthermore, there is the risk that Trump or Kim could feel humiliated by a summit that yielded nothing, again raising the chance of war or miscalculation leading to disaster.

In chess there is a concept known as “zugzwang,” or “compulsion to move.” It’s used to describe the position of a player with no good options who would prefer to do nothing at all. That’s not a possibility in chess, so the unfortunate player faces a situation in which all roads involve a deterioration of his position.

There is much more at the link, only one scenario being even somewhat optimistic.

My visit to the World Chess Hall of Fame

A significant part of a St. Louis block is devoted to the world of chess.  There is the Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Chess Club, and also a chess-themed restaurant, Kingside Diner, with a King on the men’s room door and a Queen on the women’s room.  The facilities are world class and very welcoming for the visitor; I am honored to have been given a personal tour (and to have eaten fish and chips there).

If you see a Slavic-looking face walking down this street, you simply assume it is a chess player.  In general, I am very interested in the idea of creating extreme mini-universes, a’la Robert Nozick’s concept of utopia.  This is what the chess utopia looks like, and it is in St. Louis.  In this world, rating matters more than race or gender or age.

Many of America’s best chess players now live in or near St. Louis, and the two best college teams — Webster and SLU — are both in or near St. Louis.

One lesson is the power of philanthropy in an otherwise under-supported domain.  I am instead used to seeing donations in “crowded” areas, such as economics or politics.  Rex Sinquefield, a former finance economist, and the developer of index investing, has been the major force behind the rise of St. Louis in chess.  The game is now played in more than one hundred of the local schools.

The strangest moment for me was reading through the plaques in the Hall.  I had known many of those individuals during the ages 13-16, but for the most part have not had contact with them since, or heard word of them.  All at once, I learned when each had died, and which of the few remained alive.

The return of Nigeria’s kidnapped girls

Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw at the WSJ follow up on what was a super dramatic story that turned into a neglected and under-reported tale.  What is life like for the Boko Harum kidnap victims after their liberation?

The women had acclimated to the forest camps where Boko Haram insurgents threatened them at gunpoint to either convert to Islam and marry a fighter or be a slave.

About half chose slavery, which cost them access to food and shelter.

Here is another bit:

Psychologists who specialize in kidnap victims say they are unsure about the best way to simultaneously treat and educate such a large group of women—ages 18 to 27—after years of collective captivity and abuse.

The spelling bee contests, one healing piece of the curriculum, arrived as something of a surprise. It was the Chibok girls who came up with the idea.

And:

One night, plopped on couches, they watched “Akeelah and the Bee,” a movie about an 11-year-old African-American girl in Los Angeles who finds her confidence after her father’s death by winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The students watched the movie again and again over bowls of popcorn. They went to their teachers with a demand: They wanted to hold their own spelling bees. The teachers agreed.

The young women began memorizing vocabulary lists and testing each others’ lexicographic skills. Their wordplay escalated into late-night spelling battles. “It was unbelievably competitive,” Mr. Braggs said.

Spelling employs a skill many of the women honed while captive: mnemonic memory. Some spent much of their time memorizing lengthy prayers and hymns. Others composed diary entries in their heads—their thoughts, injustices they suffered—they would later log in journals they kept hidden. In secret, they retold the story of Job, the biblical figure who was punished in a test of his faith.

By the way, 112 girls remain missing and 13 are presumed dead.

The culture that is San Francisco solve for the equilibrium

A man threw his body onto a self-driving car — a GM Cruise AV — causing a car vs. pedestrian collision at the 16th and Valencia intersection earlier this month, the DMV reported Wednesday.

Operating in “autonomous mode,” the Cruise AV was stopped at a green light, facing northbound on Valencia, waiting to make a right turn onto 16th Street as pedestrians crossed.

Suddenly, a man ran across Valencia Street against the “do not walk” sign, shouting, and struck the left side of the car’s rear bumper and hatch with his entire body. This is all according to a report the self-driving car manufacturer must file with the DMV in the event of a collision.

The man sustained no injuries, but the car did. It suffered “some damage to its right rear light,” according to the report.

Here is the full story.